27 March 2014

March shorts

March 19, top, and 23 (bottom, my birthday);
spring arrives again, right on time!
Earlier this month, we thought we'd received spring a month early. The thaw that usually comes in early to mid April was in full progress by the end of the first week of March. Spring fever was on our students, too; the ones who bothered to come to class pleaded with me to take the class outside. Since that would probably have taken special permission from the Ministry, we stayed in the classroom, casting longing glances through the window.

On March 18, we had an impressive snowstorm, but the snow soon melted. On March 19, winter came roaring back, with temperatures cold enough to pack the snow back down all around us. It was easy enough for me to deal with; nobody could take away those two weeks of spring preview that we'd enjoyed! Growing up in Chicago, I knew what changeable weather was all about, anyway.

Spring returned, though, just in time for my birthday on March 23. As I write, we're still enjoying it. Maybe we've not seen the last of winter for this year, but we've certainly seen most of it.

"Ain't nothing free in this world but Jesus." Once again this year, we showed our graduating students the film Ray, the story of Ray Charles. Each year, I wonder whether the film will finally lose its edge for our students, but again this year I saw that it seemed to make an impression as deep as it did the first time I showed the film here at our institute, back in fall 2007.

Here on this page of my school blog, you can see the discussion questions we used to discuss the film earlier today. We probably spent almost half the class time talking about the first question, whether the students had any memories of what their elders might have said to them "that might come back to you in a similar way when you need it..." as Ray's mother's advice came back to Ray. Our great students treated many of these questions with similar seriousness. I won't spoil the privacy of that intense session by quoting them in this public space, but, trust me, these students were more than worthy of this good material.

At the end, we talked about the vision Ray had in the drug recovery clinic, in which he saw his mother and brother. We told our students that someday, the greatest gift they may be in a position to give someone might be the same words that George told Ray: "It wasn't your fault."

I always find it helpful to compare two ways of understanding Ray's mother's words to him: "Ain't nothing free in this world but Jesus." In one of the film's dramatic drug scenes, the words come out with biting cynicism. But look again at those words without that cynicism, and suddenly they're among the truest and most precious words in the world.

What if Putin is right? As we struggle through these days and weeks of the Ukrainian and Crimean crises, not helped by waves of media disinformation, there's a frequent theme in the Western press: what does Vladimir Putin want? (Let me repeat this link to Sean Guillory's article on "infantilizing Putin.") In the service of Putin as the villain-in-chief of the Crimean drama, commentators sometimes refer back to the speech in which he said, "... we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century" to prove his ill-concealed wish to reassemble the Soviet empire.

It's not my job to defend power politicians of any country. But in my ongoing quixotic campaign to confront this era's truly characteristic and major sin--bearing false witness--I'd like to insist that we read these words in their larger context. First of all, it's clear from that context that Vladimir Putin was grieving the breakup of a country, not the end of a repressive and inhumane political system. In other words, the end of the Soviet Union as a united country and the end of the Soviet communist system are two separate issues. True, some parts of the Soviet empire were welded together through sheer violence, which meant that centripetal forces were inevitable as that system collapsed, but those forces (even when labeled "freedom") undeniably caused massive disruptions in lives and economies. It could be argued that the Crimean crisis is a symptom of those disruptions. And the awkward truth is that, as much as we might worry about civil society and freedom of conscience in Russia, the situation here is much better than in some other parts of the former Soviet Union.

And, second, it's also clear that Putin's 2005 speech, from which Western commentators like to quote so selectively, has other important quotations as well, some of which Putin himself might do well to re-read.

Among the situations that cause some anxiety here: "Russia's Media Crackdown Spills into Academia" and "Dozhd Fights to Save Independent Reporting."

Quaker Spring 2014, Barnesville, Ohio, USA: "Experiencing the Inward Christ Together."

Rob Grayson: "The Powers Exposed."
Jesus did not die because God had an anger problem and needed to be appeased. ... No, Jesus died to take on the effects of our malice, rivalry and self-centredness and reflect them back at us in all their undisguised ugliness. He died because it was the only way to expose the inescapable fact that the wages of sin is death.
Open Culture: "The World Concert Hall."

In keeping with the playful mood of early spring in my high-school-age classes, we used this delightful song by Rufus Thomas in a gap-fill exercise. I've posted Hans Theessink's version before, but it's worth repeating. The music starts at about 1:10.

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